Education's Next Big Thing Is Smaller Than You Think


dsc_4114_cropI remember watching an old movie with my father — I think it starred Jimmy Stewart — about an FBI agent and thinking, as agents slipped into phone booths during a manhunt at a ballgame, about how different the world was given the technological advances we’d seen since the movie was made.  No longer are secret agents searching out payphones; even the most humdrum Walter Mitty type has a relatively powerful cell phone.  But do such devices really have a place in education?  There are those who believe the answer is a decisive “yes”.

The TeacherMate is a $100 handheld device designed for children in kindergarten through second grade.  With only a handful of buttons, a screen, speakers, and a microphone, the TeacherMate might seem a bit simplistic — but that’s a big part of the point.  It’s sized for small children and the menus and controls are intuitive enough that kids figure out how to work it in a matter of minutes.  But it’s not so much the hardware that’s exciting as it is the software and the overall concept that stands to change early education.

While the TeacherMate systems are everything a school would want — durable, simple, and, above all, inexpensive — the software could conceivably run on any number of devices, from handheld video game systems to the Apple iPhone.  Using the classroom management system, teachers can track student usage — the devices can be taken home to increase learning time and parental involvement — and set individual skill levels for each student.  This means that differentiated instruction — tailoring lessons to each individual child’s level — becomes dirt simple.

Even better, such systems are not limited to schools in this country — they are already being used around the world in places like Rwanda, Uganda, India, South Korea, and the Philippines.  “Content is king,” says Richard Rowe, founder of the Open Learning Exchange, a non-profit that provides access to basic education around the world, “and too often little attention is paid to content. TeacherMate is a shining exception to that rule. What makes it so good is the software: it actively engages the student and frees up the teacher to be more of a mentor.”

But what good is the software without something to run it on?  What could possibly be more affordable than the $100 TeacherMate?  Rowe thinks he knows.  “Mobile phones used offline have virtually the same features as the TeacherMate,” he notes.  “Screen, speaker, mic, buttons. Mobile phones will continue to be more iPhone/iPad-like in the not-too-distant future.”

Rachel Grilley is a first grade teacher with a masters in educational technology; her thesis was on integrating technology into the reading curriculum.  She notes that “today’s children are growing up surrounded by technology and constantly playing video games, these sorts of devices meet their needs in a way that is familiar and comfortable for them.”  Ms. Grilley also likes that the systems like the TeacherMate allow teachers to “find specific areas where children are having difficulty and focus on addressing those issues.”

So if it looks like your kid is sitting around playing a handheld video game or mucking about on a cell phone, be aware that it might just be the next big thing in education.

Photo: Uncle Roger